Monday, February 26, 2018

Training camp opens for 15 Liga teams...then there's Tabasco

Tabasco Olmecas team president Juan Luis Dagdug
As February heads into its final week of 2018, training camp is in full swing for all 30 Major League Baseball teams as well as 15 of their counterparts south of the border in the Mexican League.  Then there are the Tabasco Olmecas.

The Villahermosa-based team staggered through a moribund season last year, finishing a Liga-worst 38-69 on the field to come in 26 games out of first place in the mediocre South Division.  The poor showing was reflected in the box office at Parque Centenario 27 de Febrero, where only 71,829 souls passed through the turnstiles over 50 dates for an average of just 1,437 per opening.  The ballpark itself was plagued by electrical problems throughout the campaign, with power outages a common occurrence, which didn't help attendance at all.  The nadir of the Olmecas season came Sunday, July 2, when only 178 were in the stands to witness a 5-0 loss to Monterrey.  It was that kind of year in Tabasco.

Former team chairman Carlos Jose Dagdug, who resigned from his club duties after the 2017 schedule was completed, told Tabasco Hoy last fall that it would take about 40 million pesos (approximately 2.2 million US dollars) to field a competitive team in Villahermosa this year under manager Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez.  The former MLB shortstop had yet to convene training camp for the squad as of late last week, however, as rumors float that cash shortages in the front office have led to the delay.  Whatever the cause, the situation mirrors the late starts by newcomers Durango and Leon last year, with both teams playing on the road for the first month of the season while their own ballpark upgrades were being performed.

One positive bit of news coming out of Tabasco is that renovations to Parque Centenario 27 de Febrer, which turns 54 Tuesday, are underway and hoped to be mostly completed when the regular season opens in late March.  LMB president Javier Salinas toured the facility last week with new team president Juan Luis Dagdug (Carlos' brother)  as part of a visit to the troubled franchise, calling the Olmecas one of the "pillars" of the Mexican League due to their continuous play since starting in 1977.  Renovations will include a paint job, restroom upgrades, remodeled locker rooms maintenance to the grandstand roof.  Hopefully a call to an electrician is also on the agenda.

Acereros undergoing makeover for 2018 season

Former Monclova SS Amadeo Zazueta (now with Leon)
When the already-strong Monclova Acereros were able to pluck most of the players from the 2016 Mexican League champion Puebla Pericos after Pericos owner Gerardo Benavides purchased the Acereros last winter, Monclova was considered a favorite by many to win the LMB flag in 2017.  Indeed, the team did well during the regular season by going 67-41 to finish third in the tough North Division, but were swept in four games by Monterrey in the first round of the playoffs.  Meanwhile, the roster-ravaged Pericos managed to pull things together under new manager Tim Johnson and reached the LMB Championship Series before falling to Tijuana. 

Never the type of person to sit idly even in the best of times, Benavides was expected to rearrange the landscape of his preferred hometown team.  He started with his manager, Jorge Luis Loredo, who took over the team after the Wally Backman experiment failed and steadied the ship before the Acereros' ignominious postseason exit.  Loredo was not rehired and will coach for Houston Jimenez in Tabasco this year while former MLB and LMB catcher Dan Firova was hired to manage in Monclova.

A six-player "trade" with Puebla shortly after the season ended netted shortstop Alberto Carreon, third baseman Issmael Salas and catcher Cesar Tapia while the Acereos only gave up catcher DJ Dixon and pitchers Julio Felix and Romario Gil, but Salas has already been returned to Puebla without ever suiting up for the Steelers.  Then shortstop Amadeo Zazueta, who played in the All-Star Game at Campeche and had a terrific year at the plate with a .341 batting average, was shipped to Leon without a player coming in return from the Bravos.

Finally, Monclova worked a deal with Tijuana last Friday in which speedy centerfielder Justin Greene and solid right-handed pitcher Hector Galvan were sent to the Toros in exchange for reserve outfielder Chris Valencia and righty pitchers Jordan Aboites and Edwin Quirarte, a deal that at first glance seems to clearly favor the defending champions.  Another head-scratching transaction was the importing of former MLB second baseman Jemile Weeks, who hit .303 for Oakland in 2011 but has otherwise been a bit of a journeyman, appearing for four big league teams between 2011 and 2016.  What Firova will do with Weeks is uncertain, given that he already has arguably the best Mexican second sacker in the game on his roster in Manny Rodriguez.

Whether all the personnel moves result in Monclova winning the city's first LMB pennant since the Acereros made their debut in 1974 (Benavides' grandfather was owner) remains to be seen, but Firova himself may need a scorecard to keep track of who's playing for him on any given night.

Venados' owner willing to host 2019 Caribbean Series, if needed

Artist's conception of remodeled Mazatlan ballpark
If the Caribbean Series is going to have to be moved a second year in a row, another Mexican Pacific League team (at least their owner) has let it be known they'd be willing and able to pinch-hit as an emergency site for the Crown Jewel of Latin Baseball.  This year, of course, the Jalisco Charros stepped up to host the event after political and economic turmoil in Venezuela led the tournament organizers to move the CS out of Barquisimieto to Guadalajara, making it two years in a row that Mexico has held the Serie del Caribe (Culiacan was the site in 2017).  Barquisimieto will get another crack next February if conditions in Venezuela stabilize but if things don't work out again, the Mazatlan Venados owner says he's interested in bringing the CS to the Pearl of the Pacific for a second time.

Venados owner Antonio Toledo tells Puro Beisbol's Fernando Ballesteros that if Venezuela has to drop out as CS host, "The Dominican Republic would be the second option but in case they're not in condition to take over, we could get in."  After years of jockeying for an all-new ballpark north of the city's tourist zone, it was decided instead to completely renovate Estadio Teodoro Mariscal, which has been home to the Venados since its 1962 opening.  While various maintenance and repair projects (including a 2000 seating expansion) have been performed at the 15,000-seat ballpark, which sits between the Zona Dorado to the north and downtown Mazatlan to the south, this is the first-ever major overhaul of the facility.  "Our remodeled stadium should be ready by the beginning of October," Toledo told Ballesteros, "but if it's not, it's possible we can play a few series on the road to start the season."

Mazatlan is one of five LMP cities that typically rotate as Caribbean Series hosts, along with Mexicali, Hermosillo, Culiacan and now Guadalajara.  The tourney itself historically has rotated between Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic over the past four decades, although Miami was the site for two ill-fated attempts to bring the CS to the United States in the early 90's.  Mazatlan has hosted the tournament four times (1978, 1985, 1993 and 2005), with the Venados becoming the only host team to win the CS in front of its own fans in 2005.

Barquisimieto is scheduled to host the Caribbean Series in 2019, followed by San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2020 and Mazatlan in 2021.  There has been talk of Havana, Cuba being a potential site, although the needed infrastructure may not yet be in place to handle the influx of fans from other countries, while both Panama and Colombia have also been mentioned as COPABE president Jose Manuel Puello seeks to expand the event to other nations.  However, Mexico has proven to be the most supportive of the participating countries since the turn of the century, so it would not be wise to count out Mazatlan two years early...just in case.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Dodgers-Padres series in Monterrey sells out in two hours

Fans waiting to buy Dodgers-Padres tickets in Monterrey
If any question remained as to whether the May series in Monterrey between the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers and their NL rivals from San Diego is a big deal, those doubts should be dispelled by the fact that only two hours were required to sell out 22,000-seat Estadio Monterrey for all three games. 

According to Puro Beisbol's Hector Bencomo in his Imparable column on Saturday, ducats went on sale Friday via Ticketmaster and were quickly snapped up, with a few seats to be offered to Padres VIPs reportedly the only tickets remaining.  Although ticketbuyers were required to purchase a three-game package, there's no doubt that a large number of single-game tickets will be made available through secondary sellers like StubHub (at a premium, of course).  Bencomo says that while ticket sales at the offices of the host Monterrey Sultanes was fully staffed, only about 800 walk-up fans were able to buy tickets before the series was sold out, with another frustrated 700 would-be ticketbuyers still standing in a line that stretched through the parking lot.

The so-called Mexico Series will mark the first regular season appearance of Major League Baseball teams south of the border in 19 years, when the Padres and Colorado Rockies opened the 1999 campaign with a single game in Monterrey on April 4.  Three years earlier, San Diego and the New York Mets competed in the first-ever MLB series in Mexico, also at Estadio Monterrey in August 1996.  The ballpark, which opened in July 1990, is currently undergoing a retrofit that will lower the capacity from 27,000 to 22,000 seats but make the facility (Mexico's largest baseball stadium) more user-friendly.

The series will feature a number of marquee names among the playing ranks, mostly among the Dodgers, who'll bring Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Corey Seager, Chase Utley and Yasiel Puig.  San Diego will have notable performers Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, Clayton Richard and likely Christian Villanueva, a third baseman from Guadalajara who impressed the Padres during a September callup last year by batting .344 with four homers in 32 at-bats over 12 games.

Heras fails to reach terms on loan to Monclova, returns to Yucatan

Yucatan (for now) outfielder Leo Heras
Close observers of Mexican baseball have no doubt noticed the practice of teams "loaning" players to each other.  It's a decades-old system in which one franchise facing a surplus of players at one position will loan a player to another league club with a need at that position for the season, with the loaning team holding the player's rights while the receiving team often picks up the salary of the player being transferred. 

Sometimes such deals can reach ridiculous proportions when the two teams involved are under the same ownership, creating a situation where clubs like Union Laguna and Puebla serve roles with Yucatan and Monclova (respectively) similar to how the old Kansas City Athletics were considered a de facto "farm team" for the New York Yankees in the late 1950's.  Players usually have no recourse, but there are exceptions to the rule and outfielder Leo Heras is the latest to buck the system.

Heras is a 27-year-old Tijuana native who will be entering his twelfth year of pro ball after debuting with his hometown Tijuana Potros in 2007 at age 16.  The 5'9" lefty hitter has built a reputation as a reliable batsman with gap power, some speed and good enough with a glove to be able to play all three outfield slots and fill in at second in a pinch.  He's a career .313 batter over eleven Liga seasons and collecting 67 homers and 115 stolen bases in 741 LMB games, appearing on four All-Star Games along the way. 

Last summer, the one-time Astros farmhand hit .293 with three homers in 95 games for Yucatan after a March trade from Mexico City to the Merida club before turning in a .253/0/19 winterball campaign for Obregon.  While he was toiling for the Yaquis last December, the Leones shipped him on loan to Monclova and the status quo appeared to be undisturbed (with Heras even appearing at an Acereros press conference announcing his arrival) until Heras did the unusual: He balked at the deal.

The issue appears to be money, as Heras and the Steelers were unable to reach an agreement as to how much the outfielder would earn for the 2018 season.  Puro Beisbol's Hector Bencomo weighed in on the subject, speculating that Heras considered the move from Yucatan to Monclova a sale and not a loan, and that the veteran flychaser wanted a percentage of the sale price.  The reason for the fallout and Heras' subsequent return to Merida has never been broached by either side, but the issue of a player seeking compensation when he's sold dates back to the days of legendary slugger Hector Espino. 

Espino's disputes over salaries and sales, mostly with the Monterrey Sultanes, are legendary among Mexican baseball cognoscenti.  A very quiet man by nature, Espino was also every bit as proud and aware of his value as both a player and a man and not afraid to dig in his heels against ownership.  That's something almost unheard of among ballplayers south of the border even today, so Heras' stance ensured his return to Yucatan last week and has likely punched his ticket to another LMB franchise who'll be willing to meet his price.

Diablos GM Minjarez suspended for role in "Rookiegate"

Francisco Minjarez (while a Tigres employee)
Several months after Quintana Roo Tigres owners Fernando and Linda Valenzuela lodged a complaint with the Mexican League over the suspicious transfer of five Tigres prospects to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos while the Valenzuelas were purchasing the Cancun franchise, there has been a response from the LMB office.  Diablos general manager Francisco "Pollo" Minjarez has been suspended indefinitely by the Liga office after having been employed in the Tigres front office prior to last February's sale before moving to Mexico City to serve as the Red Devils GM, and is believed to have played a pivotal role at both ends in the prospect transfer.

Minjarez was working in the Cancun front office under longtime Tigres GM Chito Rodriguez while owner Carlos Peralta was in the process of selling the franchise to the Valenzuelas in a deal finalized a year ago.  Shortly after the Tigres changed hands, Rodriguez retired and Minjares took the GM job in Mexico City under Diablos team president Roberto Mansur, who retired after last season, stating health concerns.  During this timeframe, five Tigres prospects on a master player roster the Valenzuelas claim they had in January 2017 became property of the Diablos in February in what Minjarez told Proceso reporter Beatriz Pereyra was a "gentleman's agreement" between the two sides.  He did not specify whether the agreement was between Peralta and Red Devils owner Alfredo Harp Helu or between Rodriguez and Mansur, two decades-long powers within the LMB, or any combination thereof.

That deal exploded in importance last June when the Diablos sold two of the five former Tigres prospects, 15-year-old infielder Fernando Villalobos and 16-year-old pitcher Damien Mendoza, for US$1.5 million and US$1.2 million, respectively.  The bone of contention with the Tigres and the Valenzuelas is that since they were not informed of the transaction, the rights to the five prospects (including Villalobos and Mendoza) still belonged to them and that they should receive proceeds from the two sales.  For his part, Minjarez told Pereyra that the transfer of the prospects is common among some LMB teams and that the deal had already consummated before the sale of the Tigres was finalized.

There's speculation that Minjarez may return to his former GM position in Obregon, now that a five-year suspension he received from the LMP in 2013 after not paying players promised bonuses after winning their third straight pennant has ended.  The Diablos are not taking this quietly, however, as new team president Othon Diaz wrote a letter to Mexican League president Javier Salinas protesting Minjarez' suspension and a formal protest is not being ruled out.  That would put Salinas in the difficult position of a first-year league president going head-to-head with his league's richest owner and be a real test of his leadership and power.

As for the Valenzuelas, they're still waiting to hear how much of that US$2.7 million they'll be getting.  While Fernando may be a better known figure in Mexico and the USA than Harp (he's no doubt more popular), baseball has always been a tough sell in Cancun, the once-proud franchise may face some difficult times ahead.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Culiacan finishes CS at 1-3; Caguas cops title (again)

Culiacan's Sebastian Elizalde scored the first run of the game from third base after Dominican shortstop Abiatal Avelino made a fielding error on a Jesse Castillo grounder in the top of the first inning as the Mexican Pacific League champion Tomateros went on to trounce the Cibaenas Aguilas, 8-1, last Tuesday to close out the host team's appearance at the Caribbean Series in Guadalajara.  The Mexicans finished the round-robin stage of play with a 1-3 record to fall a game short of the semifinals.  Cibaenas went on to reach Thursday's CS final before falling to Puerto Rican titleist Caguas, 9-4, to give the Criollos their second straight Serie del Caribe championship.

The Tomateros raised their lead to 3-0 in the top of the fifth courtesy of another Aguilas infield error, this time a wide throw to first by third baseman Hector Gomez on a Joey Meneses grounder that allowed both Justin Greene and Elizalde to score on the play.  The Dominicans were their own worst enemy in the field by committing an astounding six errors in the contest, although only one Mexican run was unearned.  Cibaenas scored their lone run in the bottom of the fifth when Gomez scored from third on Gustavo Nunez' sacrifice fly to Greene in center field, but Culiacan effectively salted the game away with a four-run outburst in the top of the sixth.

In that frame, the retiring Alfredo Amezaga rapped a triple to right off Samuel Deduno that plated Walter Ibarra and Gabriel Gutierrez to make it a 5-1 score, followed by a Greene homer to left to bring in Amezaga, giving Mexico a 7-1 advantage.  Japan-bound slugger Japhet Amador completed Culiacan's scoring for the game (and series) by launching an insurance homer over the center field wall against Cibaenas' Esmerling de la Rosa in the top of the seventh in a game that was played without much drama after the Mexicans were mathematically eliminated from Final Four contention the night before.

Mexican starter Sergio Mitre (6 innings, 1 run) got the win while Domincan hurler Angel Castro took the loss after letting in one run in three entradas.  Elizalde, Greene and Amador each had two of the Tomateros' nine hits on the night while Gomez' three safeties paced the eight-hit Dominican effort but four Culiacan relievers combined to fire three innings of two-hit shutout ball the rest of the way.

Tuesday's win was perhaps the lone bright spot for manager Benji Gil's Tomateros, whose MexPac championship team added 15 reinforcements prior to traveling east to Guadalajara.  A natural lightning rod who received widespread criticism (and a fine from the LMP) by making an obscene gesture following Culiacan's pennant-clinching win in Navojoa, Gil was plagued by bullpen collapses in Mexico's first two losses against Puerto Rico and Cuba's Granma Alazanes before falling to Venezuelan kingpins Anzoategui in a game they never led.  Surprisingly, the Tomateros had the lowest ERA of the five-team field at 4.37 but the highest WHIP of the tourney with a 1.66 mark.  They came in last in team batting by turning in a .273 average, respectable enough but well behind the Venezuelans' smoking .356 figure.  Greene and Rico Noel both hit .333 to lead the "home" team but the Mexicans' power shortage (only three homers at hitter-friendly Estadio Charros) didn't help and only Elizalde recorded more than two RBIs with three.  Reliever Jose Isidro Marquez, son of longtime closer Isidro Marquez, had three hitless appearances out of the bullpen, striking out four.  Despite the controversy and lack of success at the CS, Tomateros owner Hector Ley says that Gil will be back as manager in Culiacan next winter.

Ultimately, however, it was a flat performance by the Tomateros, who missed the LMP playoffs last winter when Culiacan hosted the Caribbean Series.  Guadalajara was pressed into service as hosts this time around when Venezuela's unstable political and economic situation forced the Caribbean Baseball Federation to pull out of Barquisimeto last year.  They'll try Venezuela again in 2019 but while CBPC president Juan Francisco Puello spoke bravely about big things in the CS' future, talk has already started up that Mazatlan may be similarly called upon as Guadalajara was.  The Venados are scheduled to host the CS in 2021 as part of the event's four-nations rotation, but current renovations at Estadio Teodoro Mariscal may bring the tournament to the Pearl of the Pacific two years early.  Puerto Rico is due to serve as hosts in 2020, depending on how efforts to bring the island back from last fall's devastating hurricane have gone by then.  Puello also says that Panama, Nicaragua and Colombia (who all send their winter champions to the lower-level Latin American Series) are under consideration for future inclusion in the Caribbean Series, although it's hard to see how any of the three would be contenders for a title anytime soon.

In all, Guadalajara received high marks for how the city (and host Jalisco Charros) staged the tournament, as Charros owner Armando Navarro continued his high-wattage effort to raise his hometown's baseball profile in the wake of last spring's World Baseball Classic first round games there that also earned high marks.

Jimenez, Picota to fill last two LMB managerial vacancies

Former major league shortstop Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez has been hired (as expected) to manage the
Mexican League's Tabasco Olmecas in 2018 while well-travelled former pitcher Lenin "Len" Picota will be dugout boss for the Saltillo Saraperos.  Both moves come with training camps set to open later this month and the regular season six weeks away.

The hirings complete the LMB's 16-man managerial roster for their upcoming Apertura season, set to run from late March through June with 57-game schedules followed by a month of playoffs.  The 2018 Clausura will mirror that format from July through mid-October.  While the league isn't actually using either term, the Liga Mexicana soccer circuit for whom LMB president Javier Salinas once worked, has employed Apertura ("Opening") and Clausura ("Closing") for their own two-season approach that has been quite successful for them over the years.  We'll use them here, for now.

The 60-year-old Jimenez is a Mexico City native who reportedly got his nickname from a character in a TV western (perhaps "Temple Houston," a 1963-64 series about a frontier lawyer?).  As a player he was similar to another Mexican shortstop, Mario Mendoza: Solid defenders but light hitter in the majors whose bats warmed up enough in the Mexican League to bring Salon de la Fama elections to both.  Another parallel between Jimenez and Mendoza is that both have spent most of the past two decades as managers in Mexican baseball, a peripatetic existence that has brought pennants to neither as a skipper.  Jimenez was let go in Oaxaca last September after two seasons at the helm of the Guerreros.  He went 40-67 in 2017 for a two-year record in Oaxaca of 78-119 in his second go-round with the franchise (this will be Jimenez' second job in Villahermosa as well).  This will be his eleventh MXL managerial job since 2001 but Jimenez has enjoyed a measure of success, going 879-777-3 in seventeen seasons dating to 1999.  He was a coach on Mexico's 2009 WBC team and elected to the Salon in 2013.  The Olmecas finished last in the LMB South in 2017 with a 38-69 record.

Unlike Jimenez, Picota's new job in Saltillo will be his first managerial gig in Mexican baseball.  However, the 51-year-old former pitcher is no stranger to the game south of the border.  A former Cardinals prospect who rose as high as Class AAA, Picota eventually moved on to independent ball, Taiwan, South Korea and Mexico, with LMB stops in Oaxaca, Nuevo Laredo, Laguna and Aguascalientes between 1996 and 2006 (going 19-13 over all or part of four seasons).  He pitched for his native Panama in the 2006 World Baseball Classic at age 39, later coached for the Panamanians in two more WBCs and served as Panama National Team assistant manager under new Monterrey skipper Roberto Kelly in 2014.  More recently, he has managed the Chinandega Tigres to the two most recent Probeis Panama winterball pennants and Latin American Series titles after winning the Probeis penant and a berth in the 2016 LAS managing the Panama Nacionales.  Picota will take over a Saraperos team that came in seventh in the LMB last summer with a 44-64 mark.

Here's a list of managers who will be piloting Mexican League teams when the 2018 season opens next month (new managers in italics, always subject to change):

NORTHERN DIVISION-Aguascalientes, Homar Rojas; Durango, Matias Carrillo; Union Laguna, Ramon Orantes; Dos Laredos, Eddy Castro; Monclova, Dan Firova; Monterrey, Roberto Kelly; Saltillo, Len Picota, Tijuana, Pedro Mere.
SOUTHERN DIVISION-Campeche, Daniel Fernandez; Leon, Luis Carlos Rivera; Mexico City, Victor Bojorquez; Oaxaca, Jose Luis Sandoval; Puebla, Lorenzo Bundy; Quintana Roo, Tim Johnson; Tabasco, Houston Jimenez;  Yucatan, Roberto Vizcarra.

Tix to Dodgers-Padres series in Monterrey will cost plenty

While baseball fans across Mexico are duly excited about the three-game National League regular season series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in Monterrey, they might be forgiven for taking a pause to let the price of tickets sink in.  On the basis of one US dollar being the equivalent of $18.72 in Mexican pesos (as of Sunday, February 11), a single-game ticket will cost as much as US$205 for a seat in the Platinum VIP seats behind home plate, the cheap seats on the outer edges of the upper deck looming above the left and right field corners will go for US$21 while outfield bleacher seats are priced at US$25.  The catch is that fans will be required to buy tickets to all three games of the series, each accompanied by those ubiquitous Ticketmaster fees loved by sports and music fans across both borders.

The upshot is that the first MLB regular season series in Mexico since 1999 is going to be out of the price range of many baseball lovers in Monterrey and elsewhere.  Even if a family of four were able to score tickets to the series in the upper-deck cheap seats, it would set them back US$246.79 before the Ticketmaster fees are even approached, a lot of money in a country where the GDP-based per capita income in 2016 was US$9,707 per year, or about one-fifth of what the average US resident brought in.  Here's a look at the Estadio Monterrey seating chart with corresponding per-peso ticket prices (remember to convert to US currency using that 18.72:1 ratio we mentioned in the first paragraph):

The Mexico Series will take place May 4, 5 and 6.  Estadio Monterrey is currently undergoing renovations that will modernize the ballpark, which was opened in 1990.  The upgrades will remove five thousand seats to bring the capacity down to 22,000.  The last time a regular season MLB series took place in Mexico was on Opening Day of 1999, when the Padres sent Mexican baseball legend Fernando Valenzuela to the mound against Colorado.  El Toro actually threw out the first pitch before shutting out the Rockies through six innings and earning the win in what ended up a wild 15-10 Padres triumph over their National League West rivals.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mexico 0-3 to start Caribbean Series, slim chance for semis

The 2018 Caribbean Series has gotten off to a thud for the Mexican Pacific League champion Culiacan Tomateros, who added no fewer than 15 reinforcements from other LMP teams after the conclusion of the playoffs to give manager Benji Gil a veritable all-star team to take to Guadalajara (while a number of miffed players were left behind).  Regardless of having a talent-loaded squad, the Mexicans lost their first three games at Estadio Charros to place themselves in must-win mode for their final round-robin contest.

Culiacan lost Friday's opener to defending champion Caguas of Puerto Rico, 7-4, in front of 16,500 fans.  The Tomateros held a 4-3 lead after four innings, but the Criollos tied the game in the top of the fifth and touched reliever Casey Coleman for three runs in the eighth to achieve their margin of victory.  Coleman (part of the only three-generation pitching family in MLB history) allowed three hits, including an RBI ground-rule double to David Vidal that broke the deadlock.  Nick Struck, who relieved Coleman with one out, let another run on on a wild pitch to Dayron Verona before giving up a run-scoring trip to Verona to bring the score to 7-4.  Sebastian Elizalde singled twice to drive in two runs and score another for Mexico, Jesse Castillo and Gabriel Gutierrez combined for four hits and Ronnier Mustelier scored twice.  Anthony Garcia paced the winners with three hits, including two doubles, two RBIs and a run scored.  Edgar Gonzalez (4.2IP/4R/8H) had a rocky start for Culiacan, for whom Coleman took the loss.

Saturday night's game went no better for Mexico in a 5-4 loss to Cuba's Granma Alazanes after frittering away another late lead.  This time, it was a 4-2 advantage going into the bottom of the seventh that was lost after being built on a three-run fourth frame that featured run-scoring singles by Rico Noel and Elizalde.  Culiacan reliever Aldo Montes gave up a one-out solo homer to Raul Gonzalez to make it a one-run game and a subsequent sacrifice fly by Frederich Cepeda tied the contest at 4-4.  It was left to Gonzalez to drive in the eventual game-winner in the bottom of the eighth on a sacrifice fly off the snake-bitten Coleman, who was tagged with his second loss in as many nights.  Justin Greene, Walter Ibarra and Noel each had two of eleven Mexican hits while Noel picked up two ribbies.  Culiacan starter Danny Rodriguez lasted just 37 pitches before being pulled with two out in the third, letting in two runs on as many hits and one walk.  Alain Sanchez got the win for Cuba with five innings of one-run relief.

Skipper Gil's seat got even hotter after Mexico lost their third straight game at home Sunday, 6-4, to Venezuelan champion Anzoategui.  While Culiacan never led in this one, the tilt was tied at 2-2 until the Caribes pushed a run across in the top of the sixth on Willians Astudillo's solo homer off reliever Miguel Pena, a former Red Sox farmhand who went 11-2 for Mexican League champion Tijuana last summer.  One inning later, Niuman Romero's line-drive single off Pena brought in Luis Domoromo to give the Venezuelans a two-run lead.  The Caribes scored two more in the top of the ninth to go up 6-2 before Chris Roberson's pinch homer with Joey Meneses on base closed the gap to a final two runs.  Meneses and Jesse Castillo each had two of the Tomateros' eight hits as Venezuela starter Nestor Molina (last year's LMB Pitcher of the Year with Veracruz) went 5.1 innings for the win, allowing two earned runs on five hits.  Rolando Valdez lasted four innings and 74 pitches for Mexico, letting in a part of runs, while Pena absorbed the loss after giving up those two runs.  Casey Coleman did not pitch.

The 0-3 Mexicans will get one more crack at a win Tuesday when they play Dominican  kingpins Cibaenas, managed by former LMB helmsman Lino Rivera, in the nightcap after a bye on Monday.  Cuba is 2-0 with games ahead Monday against the Dominicans and Tuesday versus Puerto Rico.  Venezuela is 2-1 going into Monday's clash with Puerto Rico, while both the Dominicans and Boricuans are 1-1.  While Culiacan is up against the wall, it should be remembered that Caguas was similarly 0-3 at this time last year before sneaking into the semis with a fourth-game win, then won the semi and final games for the championship.

Venezuela's Rene Reyes leads all batters appearing in three games with a .583 average after going 7-for-12.  Teammate Balbino Fuenmayor, who got off to a great start last summer for Veracruz in the MXL before cooling off in the second half, is right behind with a .500 average.  Fuenmayor's two homers are tied with yet another Anzoategui performer, Rafael Ortega, while his six RBIs top that list.  Six pitchers have one win apiece but only one, Dominican ex-MLBer Francisley Bueno, allowed no runs as Bueno blanked Caguas for five innings in Sunday's 6-3 Cibaenas win over the Puerto Rican champs.  Cuban veteran Lazaro Blanco has five strikeouts, one more than Mexico's Valdez and Venezuela's Molina.

One notable change from past Caribbean Series is that the games are being split into day-night doubleheader, with fans attending the afternoon games required to exit the ballpark before paying their way in for the evening contests.  Results thus far are mixed but incomplete.  With Mexico playing the nightcap throughout the round-robin stage, the afternoon games drew around 7,000 for the first two days with no attendance listed for Sunday's Day Three.  Culiacan's Friday opener against Caguas drew a sellout crowd of 16,500 at Estadio Charros, but no figures have been released for either Saturday's or Sunday's nightcaps.  The day-night format will continue through Wednesday's semifinals, with the title game slated for 9PM Eastern on Thursday night.

Diablos lose 2018 LMB All-Star Game in wake of MLB series shift
(Still) under construction: Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu
The offseason has not been kind to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos.  In addition to the so-called "Rookiegate" scandal in which the team is being investigated over five Quintana Roo Tigres prospects being mysteriously transferred to Mexico City (two of whom were sold to the Texas Rangers for a combined $2.7 million), continued delays in the construction of the Diablos' new ballpark has led to the Mexican League shifting its 2018 All-Star Game from the Nation's Capital to Parque Kukulkan in Merida, home of the Yucatan Leones.

The All-Star Game was originally scheduled to take place at 13,000-seat Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu on June 29, a date that falls between the two 57-game seasons with playoffs the LMB will be playing this year.  However, at an Assembly of Presidents meeting held last week in Mexico City, it was determined that the new ballpark (which had originally been slated to open in 2017) couldn't be guaranteed ready to host the All-Star Game.  Instead, the Presidents voted to move the contest to Merida and its 16,000-seater.  Parque Kukulkan was opened in 1982.  Since then, it has been the site of All-Star Games in 1982, 1992, 1998 and 2015 (the latter in front of 12,600 spectators).  The facility underwent $30 million in renovations prior to the 2016 season.

Losing the All-Star Game marks the second time this winter that the Diablos Rojos have lost a chance to host a major event.  The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres had previously arranged to play a 2018 three-game regular season series in Mexico City, contingent on the new ballpark being ready.  However, structural damage found in late 2017 led to all sorts of timelines being pushed back months while those damages were to be addressed.  That resulted in the Dodgers and Padres moving their series to Estadio Monterrey, home of the Sultanes, in early May.  Although the Monterrey ballpark's current renovation will drop its seating capacity from 27,000 to 22,000, it remains Mexico's largest baseball facility and should be a showcase for new Sultanes owners Grupo Multimedios, who will host the MLB set.  Monterrey led all minor league teams in attendance last summer with an average of 11,575 per game (although paid attendance at the liberally-papered house was believed by many columnists to be a fair amount less than the announced figures).

Meanwhile, back in Mexico City, the Diablos are resigning themselves to playing another season at tiny Estadio Fray Nano.  The 5,200-seat facility, which is the smallest in the MXL, was only meant to be a stopgap after the Red Devils vacated the larger (but far less baseball-friendly) Foro Sol prior to the 2015 season.  Instead, they'll be playing their fourth season on the heels of a 2017 campaign in which one of the Liga's flagship franchises finished out of the playoffs while drawing just 2,503 fans a night, 14th in the 16-team circuit.

One bright spot from last week's meeting is that the upcoming two-season LMB calendar will be named after owner Harp, only the second time the league has dedicated a season to a person.  The other was the late Mexico City Tigres founder and future LMB president Alejo Peralta.  Puro Beisbol's perspicacious columnist/editor Fernando Ballesteros noted last week that while there are similarities between the two men, Peralta's vision and effort always included Mexican baseball as a whole while Harp has kept his own vision and effort within his two teams, the Diablos and Oaxaca Guerreros.

Union Laguna changes name from Vaqueros to Algodoneros

While it's been a tough time for the aforementioned Alfredo Harp Helu in Mexico City, at least he has his billions in the bank and an upcoming Mexican League season named after him.  Then you have baseball fans in Torreon and Gomez Palacio, who've endured some hardships of their own over the years, particularly the last one.

Consider that teams representing the Laguna region have not won a Mexican League pennant since 1950, when Union Laguna beat out the Jalisco Charros for the flag.  Since then, Laguna has copped just one division crown (in 1990) while owners, managers and players have come and gone.  One thing that remains from that 1950 championship is Estadio Revolucion, a 12,000-seat ballpark with an impressive neoclassical entryway that was completed in 1932.  While some renovations were done before the 2003 season, Estadio Revolucion looks much the same as it did in a year when Babe Ruth was "calling" his homer at Wrigley Field and Mickey Mantle was turning one year old.

With that as a backdrop, Laguna fans saw their Vaqueros make an unexpected run for a Mexican League playoff berth under first-year manager Ramon Orantes last summer, only to see star first baseman Ricky Alvarez traded to Yucatan as part of a seven-player deal in late June.  Alvarez was batting .330 with 13 homers and a MXL-leading 75 RBIs in 66 games at the time, and his departure left both a huge hole in the Vaqueros lineup and tremendous unrest among the Laguna faithful.  The team plunged out of contention while attendance at home games plummeted as many fans stayed home as part of an unofficial boycott.  The Vaqueros are owned by the same Arellano brothers who coincidentally also own the Leones in Merida, beneficiaries of the one-sided Alvarez deal and confirmed over the winter that, indeed, they are more focused on success in Yucatan than Laguna.

The Arellanos (brother Erick runs the Torreon team while Jose Juan operates the Merida squad) spent the winter trying to sell the Vaqueros after it had been speculated in the past that they may seek to move the franchise to their hometown Mazatlan, but found no takers.  Thus, faced with an unhappy fan base and a team regarded as Yucatan's "farm team" the way the old Kansas City A's were to the Yankees, the Arellanos did what any logically-thinking owners would do to turn things around: They changed the team name.

The Union Laguna Vaqueros are now the Union Laguna Algodoneros (loosely translated to "Cotton Growers").  The nickname was used by the Mexican Pacific League's former Guasave team, still used by San Luis Rio Colorado's North Mexican League club and dates to the name of a Laguna franchise started in 1970 as part of the LMB's on-again, off-again presence in the region of 1.2 million residents.

Whether fans will respond to the new name when the team wearing it is the same one that missed the playoffs (albeit with a winning 60-49 record under Orantes).  Laguna did finish sixth on the MXL attendance table with an average of 4,396 in 2017, but the then-Vaqueros had been averaging over 5,000 per opening prior to the Alvarez trade and those missing fans will have to be enticed back to the Algodoneros' aging ballpark.  A name change may not be enough.